We Fled Honduras Fearing For Our Lives. Immigration Officers Abused My Child | Opinion

"Welcome to hell."

Those were the words I heard from an immigration officer not long after I entered the United States near El Paso, Texas in May 2018. I thought I had just reached safety with Angie, my 7-year-old daughter. I was wrong.

Once we arrived at the border, immigration officers processed me and my daughter at a detention facility, and led us to a crowded cell packed with 50 to 60 other families. It smelled terrible—like urine—and everything was gray. We were so cold. They didn't even offer us one of the cellophane blankets you see on TV. I had to take my shirt off to wrap it around Angie and keep her warm. I was shivering.

The journey to this point had been excruciatingly painful. Fearing for our lives, we had to make the decision to flee. I had a good life in Honduras. I was a businessman and I owned my own home. I knew it would be hard to leave everything I worked so hard to build behind. Starting a new life in a new country with a different culture wouldn't be easy. But desperate circumstances called for desperate measures. Hope of reaching a safe place for my family kept me going.

At the detention center, many fathers began hearing rumors that immigration officials were going to take our children away from us. Take them where? Take my daughter? To another cell? A new facility? On the inside I was panicking, but I knew I needed to show strength for my daughter. I needed to be brave and prepare her if the rumors were true. You will contact your grandparents in Ohio, I told Angie.

In the cell, we practiced memorizing their phone numbers, repeating them over and over. To be extra safe, I then wrote the numbers with a ball-point pen on my daughter's arm, her belly, her foot and on the inside of her jeans hoping she'd have the chance to make a phone call before immigration officials washed off the ink.

Then my nightmare happened. They came to take our children. I witnessed pain, agonizing cries and a deep sense of helplessness. Some of the immigration officers joked as they handcuffed the parents. Others expressed a cruelty I never would have expected. Rather than trying to ease our pain, they were somehow enjoying their power. As if they believed their actions were the right thing to do. I don't know how anyone believes separating a child from a parent is right.

 Backpacks lie in the road
Backpacks lie in the road to be collected by U.S. Border Patrol agents on May 19, 2021, in Del Rio, Texas. John Moore/Getty Images

When they came for Angie, she stayed quiet. We had prepared for this. I told her to be strong and comfort the children around her. She nodded. My chest felt so tight, and my heart felt so small that I thought I might collapse. I couldn't even watch her walk away—I felt completely broken. I couldn't stop thinking about where Angie was, how she was doing, if she was safe or if I'd ever see her again. For weeks, I didn't hear a single word about Angie. No one would answer my questions about her. All I had was my worry and my thoughts did not console me.

But Angie had it worse. Worse than anything I could have ever imagined.

While being transferred to a detention facility for children, an immigration officer sexually abused her. When she fought back, the officer threatened her, saying if she told anyone she would never see her parents again. Then Angie witnessed the same officer sexually abuse two girls who were even younger than her. Angie stayed quiet about the experience even months after we were reunited.

We were reunited after several weeks, though the separation felt eternal. The Angie the U.S. government returned to me is not the same girl they took out of my arms in that detention center. She cannot forget what happened to her. And she wants me to share what happened to her because she is worried the officer who abused her is still an immigration official. We do not know the officer's name—let alone whether the officer is still working in government.

"What if that officer is still hurting other kids?" Angie asked me.

As a father I want to tell Angie not to worry. That is why I am asking President Joe Biden to act. Reuniting families and making sure they have immigration status in the U.S. is critical—but it is not enough. The government can make a huge difference in the lives of thousands of asylum seekers who are being turned away at the border right now. All asylum seekers should be allowed to seek protection and refuge in the U.S. without fear.

The government must also investigate every allegation of sexual abuse and mistreatment by immigration officers. Those officers must immediately be identified and removed from their positions so they cannot hurt anyone else. President Biden, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice together have the ability to ensure that families like mine can begin to heal.

It is hell to leave your home and risk everything so your child can be safe. It shouldn't be hell once you have reached what you thought would be a safe haven.

After entering the United States to seek safety, Daniel Paz and his daughter were separated for several weeks. Paz and his family were reunited in 2018 and have since won asylum. He is a committed advocate for other families who have faced similar trauma.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.